Today marks the sixth anniversary of Elliott Smith’s death.
For me, it marks the fifth anniversary of not listening to his music. This isn’t because I don’t like it. I actually share the view that Smith was one of the best two or three singer-songwriters of his generation.
When I was in college I’d have XO and Figure 8 on repeat-play, sometimes hearing them three or four times a night. My roommate and I would waltz around the room, singing along to every song, completely unaware of the sentiments spilling from our mouths. We knew his lyrics were “deep,” but we heard what we wanted to hear. To me, the songs were dark but beautiful, haunting yet comforting, stark and lush at the same time.
Then I learned. Way too much.
In the December 2004 issue of SPIN, approximately a year after his passing, we ran a feature on the untold story behind the violent, mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. Though it was assumed he committed suicide by stabbing himself in the chest, the coroner’s report noted that “several aspects of the circumstances… are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide.”
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Some people believed his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba, who was with him at the time of his death and who pulled the knife from his body before calling 911, murdered him. Most others thought this was ridiculous. While our story by Liam Gowing touched on the rumors, it made a case for suicide. And since I was the research editor of the magazine at the time, it was my job to make sure that case was solid. I had fact-checked hundreds of articles for the magazine, but nothing like this.
For almost a month, I poured over transcripts of interviews with Smith’s friends and loved ones; I read books and newspaper articles; I tried to interpret lyrics of songs like “Suicide Machine” and “Abused,” which were unreleased at the time; I spoke with former bandmates, medical professionals, music executives, girlfriends — even Jennifer Chiba, who was so willing to talk that I found it unnerving. Some people hung up on me. Others choked up, sharing particularly troubling memories. People told me things they shouldn’t have, things I couldn’t repeat. I cried a lot that month. Sometimes it was because of stress, but mostly I was crying for Elliott Smith.
In May of 2002 I saw Smith play a private show for Northwestern University students at a club in Chicago. His set lasted 50 minutes, but he didn’t get through a single song. He seemed drunk, high, completely out of it. He kept saying that his left hand hurt — that his fingers had gone numb — and that’s why he couldn’t play. “It’s like having stuff on your hand and you can’t get it off,” he told the crowd, shaking his wrist, trying to remove the imaginary goo.
My friends and I thought this was hilarious. We repeated this line for weeks, mocking his slurred, drawn-out speech. But we didn’t know what it meant. We didn’t know that at the time he was addicted to heroin and crack, smoking up to $1,500 worth a day. We didn’t know that he had actually tried to overdoese but failed, on more than occasion. We didn’t know that he believed he was sexually abused by his stepfather as a child. We didn’t know that three months later, he’d check himself into rehab, get clean, and finally face the pain he’d spent years trying to numb. We didn’t know any of this. We just figured that he had smoked a lot of pot backstage.
They say you should never meet your idols. Nor should you get too intimate with their demons. Today, I can’t separate the songs from the story. Each one is a reminder of how cruel life can be — allowing someone like Smith, someone with that much talent and heart, to suffer through so much pain for so long. I know I should celebrate his music, be grateful for his life and gifts, and that he shared them with the world, but right now I can’t. Maybe one day I’ll feel different. I hope so. I miss him.